Thursday, February 17, 2011

For The Greater Good 9


CHAPTER NINE



    Having a half dozen weapons leveled at him made for a very tense and nervous moment, and by the look on the man standing in front of him, it went both ways. Rick looked around at the people who encircled him, trying to make eye contact and somehow gain nonverbal clues of his assailants.
 
    They all appeared tired. The tall man, which Rick assumed was the one in charge, looked to be in his late twenties, early thirties, and seemed to be the oldest. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and by his appearance, hadn’t bathed lately either, as there were white salt rings beneath his armpits and across the black t-shirt from the straps of a backpack. The rest of this crew, one younger male and three females, looked road weary as well. Rick didn’t get the feeling that these people were ne’er-do-well cockroaches.

    “It seems to me, that the decent thing to do, would have been to hijack me down at the bottom of the hill, but no…you’ve got to wait until I’ve burned out my legs and lungs getting to the top, then you ambush me.” Rick spoke slowly, and then smiled.

    The older one, taken back by Rick’s attempt at humor, snickered and smiled, then lowered his weapon. “My names Paul.” He said quietly, extending his hand.

    “Rick.” They shook hands, as Rick climbed off the bike. His leg muscles burned from the long, slow, uphill grind. Bending over to stretch, he pulled back the covering of the trailer and lifted a half-empty gallon jug of water, drinking heartily. Slapping the lid back onto the jug, Rick stepped to the side of the road and sat, rolled back and collapsed on the soft dry grass. “I am bushed.” He said, the others standing around him, looking down.

    Paul knelt down, “Rick, where are you from?”

    “Perry Hall, I started out this morning…and you?”

    “Baltimore City…we’ve been on the road for seven days.” He said, his words telegraphed their exhaustion.

    “Seven days from the city to here? That’s not much progress, is it?”

    “No, it isn’t…we could only go a few hours each night. We didn’t want to attract the helicopters and risk getting shot. During the day we laid up in abandoned buildings, avoiding contact with the other ‘element.’.” He paused, and added, “Like you, we’re bone tired and could use a break.”

    Rick started to get up before the ground became too comfortable; Paul reached out his hand, helping him off the ground. “So where are you camped?” Rick asked.

    “About fifty feet down this path. We arrived just as you were starting up the hill, it took you a while to get here.” Paul said, with a broad smile. “You can camp with us if you’d like.”

    Rick looked at Paul and his group. “I’d like that, thanks.”

    “Let me introduce you to our group. This is Christine, my wife.” Paul said, as the slender, tall brunette lowered her weapon, stepped forward and offered her hand.

    Paul, motioning to another female member, continued, “This is…” he began, but was cut off.

    “Knife, my name’s Lisa, but you can call me ‘Knife’.” The attractive dishwater blonde smiled, withholding any hand shake.  

    Rick noticed Christine subtly rolling her eyes at Knife’s introduction. “I’m Rick, pleasure to meet you.” he said, chuckling and taken back by her aggressively strange name. “How’d you get the name Knife?” He asked.  

    “It was the name I used on some Internet boards before this, and since everything has changed now, I think that maybe I should do the same.”

    Rick accepted her comment , as Paul continued, “This is Glen, and Brenda.” Glen, a small slim young man, no more that twenty-five, offered his hand. “Nice to meet you, Rick.” Brenda, the remaining female, with her brunette hair tied in a single ponytail and a pleasing smile, offered her hand, which Rick took.

    “Nice to meet you all. I appreciate you letting me camp with you.” Taking the bike by the handlebars, which his rifle was attached to, Rick started to pull the heavy load onto the path. “This is the first time I’ve used this bike system, I’m still trying to get it figured out.” Rick said, maneuvering the awkward bike and trailer along the path.

    “You’ve got a really nice set up. I wish we had something like this, sure would make our bug out easier.” Paul commented, helping Rick push the load.

    The area chosen, looked to be a former party hangout for the local teenagers. There was a fire ring, empty beer bottles and plenty of trash. A fast moving stream flowed nearby. The group’s five fully loaded backpacks lay on the ground. Rick moved past the packs and stopped on the far side of the area, next to a group of fully grown maple trees, which would serve him for his shelter.

    Paul stood next to Rick and asked, “So, how did you survive the nuke?”

    Rick was looking at the trailer and scratching his head, trying to figure out how he should begin to set up his camp. “I tell you what Paul, let me get my stuff set up and I’ll be more than happy to tell you everything.”  

    “Sure.” Paul said, turning away to his pack.

    Rick didn’t want Paul to leave, and thought he might have offended him. “Hey…” he spoke to the group, “…when was the last time you all had a hot meal?”

    Brenda spoke, “A real, honest to goodness hot meal?”

    “Yeah.”

    She looked up trying to remember, “It seems like forever.”

    “How about red beans, ham and rice? Does that sound good?”

    All five nodded, hungrily.

    “Good…tonight, dinners on me.” He smiled, and now knew where to start. Rick had nested two large metal pots on the outside of the orange paint buckets. Unloading all of the supplies from the trailer and what he needed from his backpack, Rick started the search for firewood.

    It didn’t take long before he had a nice fire working in the pit, a stainless steel rack, from his charcoal grill at home, set on the rocks above the flames. Using the rest of the water from his jug, Rick dumped a pound of red beans into one pot, setting them on the fire. When the water started to boil, Rick put the lid on and set them off to the side, letting the beans absorb the fluid and cool. While they were cooling, he started working on his shelter for the evening. Stringing a line of green military cord between two maples, and pulling them taught, this would support the tarp tent. Whittling tent pegs from a few green branches, Rick observed the others as they set up their tents. Paul and Christine were using a two-man tent, and had theirs up quickly. Glen and Brenda each used single person tents, which they slowly assembled, side by side.

    Knife put her bag beneath a low branched evergreen. Looking up to the high thin gray cloud layer, she stated, “I’m going to sleep in the open tonight, it’s not going to rain.”

    Rick also looked up at the cloud layer, saying nothing. Carefully draining the cooled beans, he removed them from the pot, and into his personal cook gear. Rick had canned meats, and other canned goods, inside a contractor garbage bag stuffed into one of the paint buckets. Removing the bag with the cans, Rick found a tin of ham, opening and cubing the salted meat. The ham went into the stockpot, fuel was added to the fire and shortly thereafter, the sound of sizzling ham with its wafting aroma drew everyone’s attention.

    Rendering the ham, he added the remaining water from his packs bladder, along with the beans and rice. Stirring continually until the meal boiled, the group gravitated towards their dinner. Rick adjusted the coals; their food was now simmering slowly.

    “Is there anything I can do to help?” Christine asked.

    “Sure, you can watch this for me.” He said, handing her a wooden spoon. “I have something else that I need to get started.”

    Taking the orange bucket with the holes he had drilled into the bottom, the shovel and the other large pot, Rick went over to a grassy area near the stream bank. Digging down about six inches, he picked out small rocks and lined the bottom of the paint bucket, and then shoveled fallout free soil into it. The dirt filled bucket was set on top of the large metal pot, suspended by two small boards, which he had brought specifically for this purpose.

    “What are you making?” Paul asked, kneeling and observing.

    “I’m filtering water.” Rick said, pausing long enough to make sure that everything was level and stable. “If you filter water through dirt, then it should remove any fallout particles that might still be present.” He said, taking his personal cook pot and dipping water from the running stream and pouring it into the dirt filled bucket. “The key is, to slow the filtering down enough so that it traps the fallout.”

    “Where did you learn that?” Paul asked.

    “I read it in a book called Nuclear War Survival Skills.” He said, pouring more water.

    Slowly, the water began to trickle out of the base of the makeshift filter and into the catch pot. Rick continued to pour in more water. “I’ll boil this after the pot is filled, and by tomorrow, the sediment should be settled on the bottom.”

    Christine called out, “Dinners ready.”

    Rick wiped out his cook set and held it out to her for a fill of the beans and ham. Everybody sat, savoring the hot, basic, yet tasty meal.

    “So Rick, how did you survive the blast?” Paul asked.

    Rick told his story, starting with Steve and the range trip with the filled backpack. Not a word was spoken as he described what Melissa and he went through. Rick didn’t go into detail about their relationship; although it was evident he cared for her deeply, preferring to keep those memories to himself.

    “You know, we were supposed to meet our friend Steve at the same indoor range…” Paul paused, thinking and then added, “…he said he had someone he wanted us to meet.” Paul looked at Rick. “You don’t think that person was you, do you?”

    “I don’t know, there are a lot of guys named Steve.” Rick said.

    “What kind of car was he driving?” Paul asked.

    “He didn’t have a car, it was a blue Ford pick-up truck…and spotless too.”

    Paul stood excitedly. “It’s the same Steve…wow, what a coincidence.”

    “That is strange, isn’t it?” Rick paused, then added, “I met Steve on a website forum years ago. We became shooting partners, and good friends.”

    “What website forum did you meet on?” Paul questioned further.

    Rick gave him the name of the survival website, “Have you ever been on that site?”

    “Yes I have, many times…my online name was ‘Claymore’, you know, like the sword.”

  “Now it’s my turn to be blown away…you and I have talked before. I went under the name, ‘Garandman’.” 

    “Whoa, this is spooky.” Christine interjected.

    Rick and Paul, shook hands again, and then bear hugged like old friends.

    “This is crazy.” Paul said. “You know, when we were in our shelter, we talked about whether our surviving was ‘luck’ or ‘providence’…one more mark for ‘providence’.”

    “Yeah, there’s no such thing as coincidence any more, at least as far as I’m concerned.”  

    “Where is Melissa now?” Christine asked.

    Rick took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “She’s dead…she was killed the day after we got to our house.” The excitement of the groups seemingly predestined meeting with Rick, faded with his statement.

    “Oh my God…that’s horrible” Brenda said and quietly asked, “If you don’t mind, how was she killed?”

    “She was shot while picking flowers, right in the front yard.”

    “I’m so sorry, that must have been…” Brenda’s words trailed off.

    “Horrible? It was worse than horrible Brenda. Anyway, I know she’s in a better place, along with my wife Linda and the kids.” He then added morosely, “I killed the bastards that did that to her…I hope they are burning in hell for it, too.” Rick changed the subject, “So, how did you all survive?”

    Paul took the hint and answered, “We were building a fallout shelter in the basement storage area of our apartment, and coincidently, the EMP happened just as we finished.”

    “So you had a shelter for five people?”

    “No, Christine and I had ours set up for two. Lisa, I mean Knife, and her husband Dave, were our neighbors. We would get together and go shooting, and decided that with all of the North Korean business going on, to build our shelters together. It turned out to be a community project. Brenda and Glen came over to help out, and uh…never left.” Paul said chuckling.

    Rick smiled along with Glen and Brenda, “Where is your husband, Knife?”

    Knife shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know.” She said quietly and evasively.

    The remaining four said nothing. Rick caught a fleeting look from Christine, which indicated this was not a pleasant subject to talk about. “So, the nuke went off, and you all made it through…tell me about your walk out.” Rick asked, redirecting the questions away from Knifes husband.

    “Like I said before, we went at night, actually it was very early in the morning around 2 or 3 am. We’d walk until about 9 or so, and then find a place to hide out until night fall.”

    “When Melissa and I made it to Loch Raven Reservoir, we heard a helicopter…with heavy machine guns and rockets firing. Did you hear anything like that?”

    “Oh yeah, first they started with loud speaker announcements, ordering people to the Johns Hopkins University Campus. Then shortly after, the shooting started. If you were caught outside at night, they targeted you, no questions asked, they just started shooting.”

    “That’s fucked, pardon my language…Johns Hopkins, that must be the Homewood Campus, right?”

    “Yeah, are you familiar with that area?” Paul asked.

    “Sure…you were deep in the city. Did you walk out through the streets?” Rick asked, knowing that some of the areas near Hopkins were deadly even before that day.

    “No, actually we used the CSX rail line to walk out…that brought us through the city to White Marsh, and then we took the roads to here.”

    Rick nodded, stunned at the outcome of their survival and his own, and their meeting.  Finishing the meal, he went over to the stream, cleaning his personal cook pot, and then continuing where he left off, running water through the water filter bucket. Everyone else held their own private conversations. Brenda brought the large cook pot over to the stream and washed the remnants of their supper out.

    “Thanks for the meal Rick, it was very good.”

    “You’re welcome…glad you liked it.”

    Brenda sat on the ground and watched Rick pour water into the filter. “Did you love her?”

    Rick dumped in more water and then sat next to her. The trickling filtered water dripped audibly in concert with the babbling stream. “We were complete opposites. Melissa was a Hippie and I am…as she would say, a ‘Redneck Neanderthal’.” He chuckled at the memory. “We survived, and fell in love. We just wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, growing food, raising animals and living in peace.”

    “What about children?” Brenda quietly asked.

    “Melissa said she couldn’t have any, so I guess that us having kids…or actually us being together wasn’t part of the plan.” He paused and then added, “I love kids.”

    Paul and Glen walked over. “Rick, where are you headed to?” Glen asked, effectively dousing the conversation with Brenda.

    “I’m heading south…what about you?”

    Paul replied, “We are divided on that one. Christine and I want to go to western Pennsylvania, Knife wants to go out west…and Glen and Brenda haven’t really said where they want to go.”  

    “If you’re heading south, then you’re going in the wrong direction.” Glen added.

    “I know…but if I went south now, I’d have to go through Baltimore City and then run into Washington DC. Those are areas I want to avoid. I figure that I would head north to Bel Air, then west…and then go south.” Rick paused and added, “I don’t know exactly where in the south I want to go, just someplace warm.” 

    Brenda got up and headed back to her tent, Glen followed.

    Rick looked up at Paul. “Sit down…so, what am I missing here?”

    Paul sat, and reached into his pants pocket, producing a pack of cigarettes, offering Rick one. They lit their cigarettes and relaxed. “Ah…group dynamics.” He said exhaling smoke. “Alright, Christine and Brenda are best friends from college. Christine is a teacher and Brenda a nurse. Glen, obviously has a ‘thing’ for Brenda…Christine says that it doesn’t go both ways. He is pretty quiet, an introverted kind of a guy. Glen’s good with maps and in the past life, with computers. Lisa…I mean Knife, is a strange chick.” Paul paused, taking another drag off of his smoke. “You saw how everyone got quiet when you asked about her husband Dave?”

    “Yeah, what’s up with that?”

    “Dave confided to me that he thought Lisa was screwing around on him, this was well before that day. Anyway, during the time we were in our shelters, Dave went mental…I mean really mental.” Paul paused. “He felt there was nothing to live for, and Lisa told him that when they left the shelter, she wanted to split up…” Flicking his cigarette butt into the stream, “…it got ugly.”

    “How ugly?”

    “He blew his brains out as we were leaving.”

    “Jesus…you’re kidding me right?”

    Paul shook his head no. “The only reason she’s with us now, is that we need her. Knife, is a good shot and is pretty aggressive.” 

    “I remember her from that website, she was definitely flirty…I didn’t care for her.” Rick commented.

    “And now, you know.” Paul said. “But hey, it’s a new world, right?”

    “Got that right.” Rick said making a fist and holding it out to Paul, who did the same, tapping their hands. “Now speaking about good shots, I see that everyone, except you, is carrying AR-15’s. How competent are they with their weapons?”

    “For the most part, they all can hit a target. We haven’t shot at anything other than paper, so I don’t really know how they’ll do in a real fight. The amount of ammo we’ve got isn’t what I’d like, but with walking out wearing a heavy pack, you can only carry so much.”

    “I see that you are carrying a FAL. I understand they are good weapons. The British military used them for many years. Of course that was before the thinking that carrying lots of ammo and small calibers became in vogue.” Rick commented.

    “Yeah, your Garand and my FAL are definitely old school.” Paul added.

    “How much ammo are you all carrying?”

    “They are carrying two hundred rounds for each of the AR’s. You might have noticed that Knife and I are the only one’s carrying pistols. We both have .45 caliber Glocks. So, your Garand…is this the one you talked about on the website, the one you built up?”

   “Yeah, it’s accurate as all get out…and does what it’s designed to do.”

    “I don’t want to sound morbid or anything, but how did it perform?” Paul questioned the circumstance of Melissa’s death and the following gunfight.

    “There were four of them. Cockroach numbers one and two I hit through car windows, if I recall correctly. It tore them up pretty well, although there wasn’t a one shot kill like everyone talks about.” Rick paused and continued, “I killed Cockroach number one with the butt of the Garand. Cockroach number two had his back blown out, and by the time I got to him, he had two buddies dragging him off. I was so pissed off about Melissa’s death that I didn’t care about killing them quickly, I just wanted to see them suffer. Cockroach number three, I shot in the lower back. Number four tried to bring his weapon on me, so I took him out with a chest shot.” Rick paused again, reliving in his mind the events. “I cut the head off of number three, and then put a pistol round into each of them.”  

    “Damn.” Paul’s eyes widened.

    The filtered water finished dripping. Rick took the pot and gingerly placed it on the grate above the dying coals of the cooking fire. Adding wood until the flames roared above the rim of the pot, they all sat around the fire, mesmerized until the water eventually reached its boiling point. Rick took his bath towel and using it as a potholder, set the water near his tent, allowing it to cool throughout the evening. Walking downstream until he was out of sight from the group, and stripping down to his underwear, he washed. Thoughts of Melissa and the conversations they shared as well as their intimate baths brought a mournful smile.   

    The group, seeing him cleaned up, meandered to the stream individually, starting the same activity.

    Rick lay on his sleeping bag, staring at the silver plastic fabric overhead, thinking about Melissa, the group, the trip, and where he was headed. Knife walked by, her bath towel, turban wrapped around her head. “Knife…it’s going to rain tonight, you might want to sleep in your tent.” Rick said.

    She smiled at him seductively. “I don’t think so.” She said, walking away, her hips swaying suggestively.

    Settling into his sleeping bag, Rick soon fell into a deep sleep. During the night he awoke to the sounds of raindrops striking the tent, he smiled, hearing Knife shout four letter expletives as she was getting drenched.

    Rick woke to a pre-dawn purple and sapphire hued sky. This was only the second time he’d seen a blue sky since that day. The early morning stars shone brilliantly before fading out to the rising sun.

    Everyone slept, as he stoked the campfire. The water, which he had filtered the day before, cooled and cleared of sediment. Rick started a pot of coffee. He knew he couldn’t carry enough supplies to recreate comfortable living conditions, but coffee was a luxury that an exception was made.

    The small steel pot percolated the brown delight quickly. Rick sipped his brew as the group started to awaken. Paul and Brenda were the first out of their tents, and after taking care of their morning bodily functions, came over to the welcoming fire. 

    Rick pointed to the coffee pot and said, “Help yourself.”

    Rushing to find their cups, all three sat in the early morning sun, sipping their steaming coffee quietly.

    Rick broke the silence, “Why don’t we try to find some bikes for you all today? I’m sure it would beat walking to wherever you decide that you’re going to go.”

    “I was thinking about the same thing.” Paul said.

    Brenda’s eyes grew wide as she wordlessly nodded her agreement. Knife, Christine and Glen were now up and came over to find the coffee pot empty.

    “I’ll make another.” Rick said, dumping out the dregs and filling the pot again. As the pot sat cooking, Rick hand pumped water from the filtered pot into his packs bladder and the gallon water jug.

    Brenda brought him a cup of coffee. “Thanks Rick, coffee is a morning ritual, that I really miss.”

    “Me too.” He agreed. “You never know what you miss, until it’s gone, right?”

    A couple hours later, camp was broken. Rick had packed the trailer, strapped the backpack to the rear of the bike, changed clothes and put on his sunglasses. “Looks like a nice day today.” He said enthusiastically. “Glen, you’re good with maps, right?”

    Glen smiled, being recognized for something special. “Yes, I have maps of this area.”

    “Think you could find a bike shop?”

    “Sure…as long as I have an address.”

    The group started off on the road to Bel Air. Rick pedaled slowly, trying not to move too far out in front. Within the first hour they arrived at an abandoned gas station on the corner of a large intersection. Glen found a faded Yellow Pages book hanging beneath a seldom used pay phone. Locating a couple of local bike shops, he pinpointed the nearest one.

    Paul came over to Rick. “How are we going to do this, we don’t have the money for bikes.”

    “Let’s play it by ear.” Rick offered, as the group headed off to the shop less than a mile distant.

    The strip mall was almost deserted. The bike shop was at the far end of the mall. As they got closer, it was apparent that some of the shops had recently opened, although without power Rick couldn’t figure out how the dry cleaners or the hair salon would operate, or who would even need those services now.

    Rick parked his bike; the others set down their packs and pushed on the front door of the shop. It opened, the brass bell clanging a note of entry. All six armed survivors entered the shop.

    “I’ll be with you in a minute.” A voice spoke from the back room. Moments later a thin pony-tailed man came out, wiping his hands on a cloth. “Is there something I can help you with?” He said, nervously eyeing the group with their weapons.

    “We’d like to buy some bikes.” Rick stated.

    “I…um, don’t have much.” The shopkeeper became visibly nervous, stammering his words.

    “What’s your name?” Rick asked in a friendly manner.

    “Will.”

    “Ok Will…my name is Rick, and this is Paul, Christine, Brenda, Glen and Knife.” He said pointing at the group, making introductions. “Will…we’re not going to shoot you…so you can relax. We just want to buy some bikes.”

    Will nodded and took a deep breath, relaxing. “I’m sorry, things have been a little crazy. What do you need?”

    “We want five, quality bikes with trailers.”

    Will wrote down the various models, along with their prices, “Do you want spare tires and repair kits?”

    Rick nodded yes.

    “Ok, that comes to $18,000, not including sales tax.” Will stated flatly.

    “Eighteen thousand dollars! Are you kidding me?” Rick replied.

    “No, I’m not kidding…I mean, there’s the bikes and trailers, and the added market value, as we’re not getting any more in.”

    “Wow…that’s a lot of money. Take a check?” Rick asked, smiling.

    “No, cash only.”

    Rick rubbed his unshaven face, playing the game. “So, you’ll take dollars?”

    “I’d prefer not to, they’re frickin worthless.”

    “Hmm…ok, maybe we can trade.”

    “What do you have?” Will asked, also playing the game.

    “How are you protecting your family?” Rick noticed the wedding band on his finger, making an assumption he had a family.

    Will looked at Rick, “I don’t have a need for guns. The National Guard and police confiscated all of the guns here.”

    “Well, it looks like they missed a few…didn’t they?” Rick smiled. “Now, what if an armed group shows up here…where’s the National Guard? Or the police? Are they around to protect you and your family?”

    This struck a nerve with Will, “No, they left…we’re basically on our own.” He thought for a moment. “I could use some weapons.”

    “Good…I have two AK-47 assault rifles, with six filled magazines. I have a very nice shotgun, with two barrels…one for self-defense and the other for hunting. I have two hundred rounds for this one.” Rick paused. “Will that work?”

    “That sounds good, but it’s not eighteen thousand dollars worth.”

    “Ok, how about some silver coin? Say, fifty ounces?”

    Will eyed Rick’s pistol, and countered. “I’ll take the assault rifles and the shotgun…one hundred ounces of silver coin and your pistol.”

    “No.” Rick extracted his semi-automatic pistol from the holster. “This Springfield might be a little complicated for you to start with…I would think that a revolver might be a better solution.” He thought for a moment, and continued, “I have a .44 Special revolver…very powerful. The revolver and one hundred rounds of ammunition…and I’ll do one hundred ounces of silver…deal?”

    Will nodded. “Deal.” They shook hands.

    “Here is what I need for you to do Will. Get Paul set up with a bike and trailer. We are going back to my house for the guns and coin. The group will stay here and help you assemble the rest of the bikes.”

    “How do I know that you’ll be coming back?”

    “Well, I’m leaving my pack, the food and the ammo can…we’ll be back.” He paused, then added, “And if we don’t come back, you can have Paul’s wife in trade.” He joked, as Christine gave him a glaring smile.

    They all laughed. “Heck, I’ve got a wife of my own…couldn’t handle two of them.” He said laughing.

    “Will, I don’t want any cheap bikes or anything so fancy that they are prone to break down…just good quality and reliable, understand?”

    “Understood.” Will started to remove the large boxes of bicycles and trailers from their storage area.

    Rick stepped outside and began to unload his trailer. The group came out with him.

    “Rick…we don’t have anything to pay you for this.” Paul said, as Christine had her arm through his.

    “Look…I’m not asking for anything in return.” He thought and then added, “The past couple of months have been shitty for everyone, right?”

    Nods from the five.

    “So, let’s say that this is the new world…Well, maybe if I do something nice for you all…just maybe, when you get to wherever you’re going, you’ll do something nice for somebody else. Who knows, it could be that this is what the new world should be like.”

    All five gave their thanks to him, which was payment enough for Rick. When his trailer was unloaded, he sat outside on the grass, looking up at the clouds and day dreaming, like he did when he was a kid, light years past. Shortly thereafter, the others, with the exception of Paul, who was helping Will get his bike assembled, came out and sat with him, also gazing at the sky, their minds in neutral.

    The clouds began to thicken and darken as Paul walked his bike rig out of the shop. Rick, Paul and Will went over both rigs, checking the gearing and brakes. Will made some adjustments to Rick’s bike, and then pronounced everything all right.

    “Do any of you guys need anything while we are gone?” Rick asked, finding the back-up pistol in his backpack, which he inserted it between his belt and khaki shorts, in the small of his back.

    “Yes I do. “Christine said, beginning to verbally list some items.

    Rick held up his hands as the list started to grow. “Hold on…I’m an old guy with a bad memory.” He said chuckling. “Make me a list.”

    Christine and Knife together, wrote out a list, handing it to Rick. Brenda came over and asked for the list, then wrote some items she needed. Rick looked at the revised list, then at Brenda.

    “What?” She said, and added, “You don’t have a problem with that do you?” She said smiling. “Besides, you’re not that old.”

    Paul kissed Christine goodbye. Rick turned to the remaining four, “Make sure you watch the doors, don’t let your guard down, ok? We’ll see you all tomorrow.” With that said, Paul and Rick rode off.

    Paul asked Rick as they were pedaling, “What was that about…with Brenda?”

    Rick laughed. “She needs tampons.”

    Paul chuckled. “I guess that some things never change, right?”

    They were outside of Bel Air and heading into the hills. The late day sky darkened as rain approached. Starting down a long hill, Rick raised his hand to Paul, “Stop.” The pair stopped and pulled off to the side of the road. “Do you smell that?”

    The smell of wood burning became quite clear. “Yeah…smells like someone’s camp fire.” Paul said.

    “I really don’t want to run into anyone right now, do you?” Meaning he wasn’t in the mood to be ambushed.

    “Let’s check it out.” Paul said, as he and Rick pulled the bike rigs off the road and into the trees. They took their rifles and stalked cautiously through the brush, down hill towards the source of the smoke. It didn’t take long before they were able to see the camp, about one hundred yards distant. Paul had brought a small pair of binoculars in his fanny pack, he scanned the area.

    “That is where we camped last night.” Paul paused, slowly breathing as he scanned their former camp, “I see two adults and one boy, or he might be a teenager, it’s hard to tell through this brush.”

    Deciding to work their way closer, a small clearing gave both a clear view without the aid of the binoculars.     

    The two men, one grossly overweight and the other, sporting a natty gray beard, began to drink some form of alcohol. The boy, who looked to be no older than fourteen or fifteen, without much prompting from the adults, also took sips of the liquor. Their voices carried through the woods, as Rick and Paul heard laughter and talking from their camp.

    “Do you see any weapons Paul?” Rick whispered.

    “Yeah, there’s a lever action hunting rifle propped against the tree behind them, and it looks like a shotgun set against their tent.” Paul paused, and then added, “I don’t see any handguns.” 

    Rick and Paul watched the men get drunk, as the boy was also becoming visibly intoxicated. The two men then kissed each other, and did a rock-paper-scissors. The boy stood by watching, delighted at the sexual attention he was about to receive. Fat Man won. The boy and Fat Man, wrapped arms around one another and went into the tent.

    “Disgusting.” Paul uttered quietly. Rick nodded silently in agreement.

    Scraggly Gray Beard, then gave a loud whistle. Moments later, another man came into view. 

    “Must be the guard.” Rick said.

    “I agree. It looks like he has a shotgun.” Paul said looking at the man through his binoculars.

    The first drops of rain lightly fell on the leaves of the trees, without hitting the ground. It quickly grew in intensity, sending Paul and Rick beneath a nearby pine for shelter.

    The guard, looked to be in his thirties, neat and clean-shaven, seemingly out of place with the other two pedophiles. Clean Shaven Man, also drank some of the alcohol and then went into Scraggly Gray Beard’s tent with him.

    “Let’s get out of here.” Rick said. The duo left, not really caring about making sounds, as the rain had picked up in volume, drowning out any noise they made.

    Back on the road, they said nothing, just focusing on biking through the chilling rain and dark, towards Perry Hall.

    Nothing had changed in Perry Hall, the roads were still clogged and their route became slow and circuitous. Arriving at Ricks home through the common area, they parked the bikes out in the open, behind his house. Listening for any noise, especially gunfire. Nothing was heard close by, however, sporadic weapons fire sounded from a few blocks away. It wasn’t as close as to give an immediate threat warning.  

    Rick took Paul into his basement, and started the gas lantern. Looking at his watch, he saw it was a little past midnight. “Are you tired?” Rick asked. Both were cold and wet from the ride in. The rain had stooped about an hour prior, and then the sky cleared, giving a bright, half moon to ride by.

    “Not really, I got my second wind as we were coming in.”

    “Me too...how about some espresso? I’d make some coffee, but my pot is back with my other stuff.”

    “Sure, I’ll have some.” Paul said.

    Rick fired up his gas stove, and filled the tiny espresso pot. As the espresso was cooking, Rick started pulling out the orange buckets. “I’m giving your group, five buckets of food. Let’s use four with rice and beans and the last one with a mix of anything else that you might like to eat.”

    “Whoa…wait a minute. Rick, this is too much…I really mean that.” Paul exclaimed.

    “Paul…be quiet and take the gift, ok...besides, I’m not finished.” He said smiling as he opened a large plastic ammo can three quarters filled with silver coins. “There’s about six hundred ounces here.”

    “Rick, I don’t mean to be ungrateful or anything.” He paused momentarily, “I think, uh, that eighteen thousand for the bikes is too much…what I mean is, I think you’re getting ripped off.” 

    “Well, if you were looking at it from a cost standpoint, I’d say that I am getting a good deal.” He looked at Paul, and continued, “First of all, the silver…I paid six dollars an ounce for that. The AK’s, what did they cost me?” He asked.

    “Nothing.” Paul said, now understanding what Rick was getting at.

    “Right…now the Charter Arms Bulldog and the shotgun with extra barrels, I spent less than a thousand total.” Rick smiled. “So, I am buying five people, bikes and trailers, for less than two thousand bucks.”

    Paul nodded.

    “Besides, goods only have value when someone recognizes their value. That’s why I asked Will questions about his families security, if he didn’t recognize the need for this”, Rick motioned to the trade goods, “then we wouldn’t have a deal…basic selling 101.”

    Paul looked at Rick and sighed. “Alright, but you have to let me try to pay you back.”

    “Sure, if that will make you feel better.” Rick paused and added, “Look, if you see anything that you want, just take it. I won’t be coming back.”

    The espresso finished, Rick poured Paul a cup. Refilling the pot, Rick made one for himself. “Paul, let me show you around.” Rick took Paul on a tour of his house, showing him the hardwood floors that he and Linda installed, his family’s photo’s…the bullet punctured walls and pointing outside where Cockroach number one lay dead. It was also obvious where Melissa died, her dried blood still on the floor.

    Rick gathered the weapons from all over the house, moving them into the basement. Downstairs, they started figuring out how best to load up the trailers. Consolidating as much into the buckets as possible, and then adding the canned goods into a contractors garbage bag. Rick remembered the list from the women. Taking another contractor bag to the upstairs bathroom and linen closet, he added what he could…making sure to put in the sanitary napkins and tampons. He also added some things that weren’t on the list. Figuring that Brenda and Christine were built similarly to Linda, Rick put in some of her bras, shorts, t-shirts, panties and lightweight wool hiking socks. He added some of his clothes into the bag, figuring that maybe Paul and Glen might use some extras. Rick also took two of his sweatshirts, giving one to Paul and putting one on for himself.

    It took another hour to load and secure the trailers. They made one more trip through the house before leaving. Rick stopped by Melissa’s grave on the way out. “Hey babe, this is my friend Paul. I met up with him and some of his friends…I sure wish you were here, you’d like these guys.”

    The pair moved out.

    The ride back though Perry Hall was much more difficult than his first trip out, due to the excessive weight of the weapons, food and coins. Even though the moon and stars were out and bright, the night shadows played games with their minds. It took an hour just to get through town. Rick and Paul went as fast as they could, but they were tiring quickly, and their progress slowed.

    Dawn broke as they were almost to the last muscle shearing, lung-burning hill. Taking a water break before they attempted the ascent, “Do you think those guys are still there?” Rick asked.

    Paul shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know.”

    The two double-checked their pistols, making sure that they were in immediate firing condition. Rick pulled the back up pistol out from behind his back, checked it and reinserted it. “Let’s push the bikes up the hill, we can have our weapons out and ready if needed.” Rick said.

    They started up the long grade, straining against the bike rigs and gravity. Each step closer to the pedophiles camp, brought them closer to the unseen danger, increasing their stress level.

    Stopping in front of the path, which led to the camp, they saw and heard nothing but the breeze blowing through the leaves. “I’m going to check it out.” Rick said, extending the kickstand on the bike and parking it. Walking quietly along the path, Rick noticed fresh footprints in the soft mud. The camp was deserted. They had left nothing except a smoldering fire.

    “They’re gone.” Rick said to Paul, exhaling a deep breath.

    “Good…at least we won’t have to deal with them today.” Paul commented.

    Pushing the bikes to the top of the hill, and then it was back on the seat and pedaling. The sun was up now and the day warmed quickly. Less than an hour later, the two were coming into the strip mall.

    “Wait a minute.” Rick stated.

    “What’s up?”

    “I don’t see anyone guarding the front door.” Looking at Paul. “Your guys would guard the door, right?”

    “They said they would…so someone should be there.”

    “Maybe I’m just getting paranoid…or maybe something’s not right.” Rick said.

    “How do you want to work this?” Paul asked.

    The pair were out of the direct line of sight of the bike shop, Rick rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. “Ok, I have an idea. I’ll go in first…you stay back and if you hear gunfire, you follow me in, ok?” Rick then told Paul the specifics of what he was planning.

    Taking the back up pistol out from behind his back, he unloaded it by dropping the magazine and emptying the chamber. Inserting the empty pistol in the front of his pants, between belt and belly, Rick covered it with his t-shirt. Quickly reaching under the shirt and pulling the weapon out, he reached his arm around his side, pointing the pistol directly behind him. Squeezing the trigger, the hammer fell on an empty chamber making a metallic click.

    “What are you doing?” Paul questioned.

    “One of the things that Steve and I used to do was to practice with rubber bullets. We had empty cases, with just a primer. They were great for practicing in the house. Anyway, he suggested this move, so if someone came behind you, there might be the possibility of getting at least one round off.”

    “I see…do it again.” Paul said, moving directly behind Rick.

    Rick practiced the move again.

    “You’ll hit him in the belly, it won’t be a killing shot, but it might give you enough time to get off another round.”

    Rick loaded the pistol and set it back in his belt. Taking the heavy ammo can, which had the silver coins, he unhooked the latch on the lid. Carrying the can in front, which hid the pistol, Rick walked to the front door of the shop. It looked deserted from the outside. Turning, and backing in through the front door, the clang of the brass door chime sounded.

    “Anybody here?” He said loudly, trying to sound calm, his nerves and mind in hyper drive. Cautiously, he started into the back workshop.

    “Hold it right there mister.” The unseen man commanded. “Keep your hands where we can see them.”

    Rick stood still.

    Standing up behind the counter, was the boy from the pedophiles camp. He held a shotgun, pointed at him. Rick couldn’t tell by the voice whether the man behind was Fat Man or Scraggly Gray Beard Man, it didn’t matter.

    “Now, you set that box down…nice and slow.” The man commanded.

    Rick could feel his assailant’s presence, directly behind him. “This is heavy…it’s filled with silver.” He said, hoping to draw their attention away.

    He knew it was time, tilting the box forward, he let it tumble out of his hands. The box and silver coins impacted the floor with a loud crash. Drawing his pistol and reaching behind, he fired one round. The noise of the .45 caliber round going off was deafening. The slug found its mark, as the man grunted loudly from the impact. Rick then swung his arm to his front, directing the pistol to the boy. Squeezing the trigger, he shot the boy dead center in the chest. Diving to the floor, Rick rolled as a blast from the now wounded man hit the tiled floor next to him. Rick pointed and fired again, twice, hitting Fat Man in the chest and throat. Fat Man went down immediately, as the second hollow point bullet exploded into his neck, severing the spinal cord.

    Rick stood and looked at the boy, he was bleeding out quickly. Glancing into the workshop, he saw Christine tied up and gagged. Rushing into the work area, he assumed that another assailant would be behind the doorway, he was wrong.

    Scraggly Gray Beard Man sat hidden behind a bicycle box in front of the door. Rick quickly rushed by, Scraggly Gray Beard Man stuck out his foot, tripping him.

    Stumbling through the opened door and failing to gain his balance, he impacted the edge of the wooden work table with his head. Stunned to the point of blacking out, he heard two shots before losing consciousness.

    Laying on his back and opening his eyes, the room swirled in blurry circles. The vision in his left eye blocked, as it was coated with blood. Brenda knelt over him as he tried to get up.

    “Hold on…you need to lay still.” She said, pressing her hand on his chest.

    “What…” His words trailed off.

    “It’s ok, Paul took care of that other guy, and the one who was holding us hostage back here, took off…we’re all safe.”

    Rick relaxed, and took a deep breath, saying nothing.

    Brenda flicked her flashlight into his eyes. “You have a mild concussion…and a nasty laceration above your left eye.” She said, wiping the blood off of his face with one hand, and keeping pressure on the bleeding wound with her other. “Now, if I can just get this bleeding to stop, “She said to herself. “You’re going to need some stitches.” She said to him.

    Rick tried to talk. It was hard making his thoughts and words match. “I have a first aid kit in my pack…bottom outside pocket. There’s also a surgical kit, with sutures.” He mumbled.

    Brenda looked up, Christine stood over both of them, and without a word, left to get the kit.

    Rick, trying to focus, saw the rest of the group and Will looking down at him. “Paul.” Rick asked.

    “Hey, how are you feeling?” Paul replied.

    “Like shit…I guess it worked.” Rick held out his fist, his arm wavering from the shock.

    Paul tapped his hand, “Damn straight it worked.”   

    Christine brought both first aid kit and the surgical kit, handing them to Brenda. Opening and reviewing their contents, Brenda found the Betadine swabs, then cleaned around Ricks wound.

    “I have some pain pills in there.” Rick said softly.

    Brenda found his assortment of pills, individually labeled. “You’ve put together a nice kit.” She took two of the Percocet and lifting his head up, gave them with a cup of water. “I’ll let those take effect, and then close this wound up.”  

    Rick felt the pills start to work, the pain was subsiding, while the dopey feeling increased. The long ride, no food and the intensity of the gunfight started taking their toll, as he began to doze off. The curved sewing needle Brenda chose, shot a razor line of pain through his face. Rick’s eyes opened wide at the sting.

    “Sorry…I’ll try to be quick about this.” Brenda said, her gloved hands smelling of latex, and her face grim in total concentration.

    “You have green eyes.” Rick said, giddily chuckling from the narcotics.

    “And you’re just noticing?” She said smiling, running another stitch through his forehead.

    “Yup, just noticing….” His slurred words quietly trailed off.

    “Rick, I want to thank you for what you did. That was very generous…” She paused and looked down at him, “…you’re a brave man.” She smiled.

    “You’re welcome, but I couldn’t very well carry ‘The Blue Box of Death’ around the country with me, could I?”

    “The what?”

    He laughed, wincing in pain, “’The Blue Box of Death’. When Linda would get her period, she would put that blue box of tampons on the back of the toilet…I knew that it would be another week or so, before we could mess around.”

    Brenda laughed, “That’s a new one on me.” Tying off another stitch.

    “Your eyes sparkle when you laugh…and you have freckles.” He said, then closed his eyes.

    “Hush…before you make me mess this up. You wouldn’t want me to slip and sew your lips together, would you?” She smiled, blushing. Completing the last stitch and tying it off, “Finished.” Looking at Rick, he was sound asleep. Making a dressing for the wound, she taped him, then stood up and took off the gloves. “Hey Glen, would you help me, please?”

    Brenda and Glen rolled out Rick’s sleeping bag and placed it beneath him, propping his head with a bundle of her unwashed clothes as a pillow.

    Rick woke later that night, with an excruciating headache. Sitting up, he tried to stand, without much success. Brenda, sleeping in her bag next to him, woke up. “Hey, how are you feeling?” She asked, sitting up.

    “My head is killing me, this is the second bump I’ve taken in about a month. I don’t want to make a habit of this.” Rick said quietly, taking a moment to get his bearings.

    “Here, take this.” She handed him another pain pill, and a cup of water.

    Rick swallowed, laying back down, and fell asleep in a matter of moments.

    The midday sun shone through the front windows of the bike shop. The group moved around quietly, trying not to wake Rick. Will, his wife Eleanor, and their two small kids, brought a gas camp stove to the store. Eleanor cooked a meal for everyone. It was the smell of food that woke Rick. 

    Sitting up, his stomach howled in need of food. “How long have I slept?”

    “About twenty four hours.” Knife said. “How are you feeling?”

    “Like I’ve been run over…I’ll live.” He said smiling back.   

    “Good…we like our guys to be alive.” She laughed.

    Rick tried to stand, his movements wobbly. “Does anyone know where the bathroom is?”

    Will came in. “Rick, you’re awake. Here, let me help you.” Will led Rick to the one stall restroom, and waited for him to come out. “Would you like some coffee?”

    “Oh man, would I…absolutely.” He said, sitting at the worktable on a bar stool.

    Eleanor brought him a cup of coffee and a bowl of chili.

    “Thank you” Rick said, and then devoured the meal. When he finished, he found Paul and the others. “Have you split up the foods and clothes yet?”

    “Not yet, we were waiting for you to wake up. I’ve been teaching Will how to use the AK’s and the other weapons, I also counted out his hundred ounces of silver.”

    “Excellent. So, let’s take all of those buckets of food, silver and the contractor bags, dump them out and then divide them equally. Everyone gets a bucket. I don’t know who you want to carry that blue enameled pot we brought for filtering water, that’s a decision you’ll have to make.” Rick then went out into the showroom. Looking around, and not finding the dead attackers. “What happened to the pedophiles?” He asked Will.

    “We took them outside and dumped them.” He replied. Will appeared different to Rick, an aura of confidence about him.

    “Good…Brenda said that there was another guy who left?”

    “I got a good look at him, if he ever shows up again, I’ll deal with him.” Will said.

    “Excellent…welcome to the new world Will.” He said smiling.

    The group came out into the bike showroom, and as a whole, looked at Rick.

    “What’s up?” He questioned.

    “Rick, we’ve made a decision.” Paul said, speaking for the group.

    “A decision about what?”

    “We all would like to join up with you.” Paul said, the group nodding yes, as one.

    Taken back by Paul’s comment. “I don’t know Paul…” he paused, rubbing his unshaven face in thought, “…I’m not much of a leader.”

    “You want my advice?” Will interjected.

    “Sure.”

    “You are a leader; you just haven’t realized it yet.” Will said, glowing in his newfound confidence.

    Rick thought for a moment, “Alright, I’ll do it.”

    “Excellent.” Paul said, extending his hand. Rick shook his hand and then hugged him. The rest of the group encircled him, hugging and shaking hands. They were now a team.

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